I’m not a short story lover by nature — I think I was soured by having to read and discuss The Lady and the Tiger one too many times in junior high school. Even with better stories, investing all that time in getting into to know a character, then having it truncated 10 or 20 pages later, is a bit too heart-wrenching. Yet there are a few stories I love to read over and over again. I just started this list and will be adding to it as more pop to mind.
“The Izu Dancer” (“Izu no oriko” in the original Japanese); by Yasunari Kawabata
Few writers have captured the uncertainties and longings of youth as poignantily as Kawabata in this story of a college student’s chaste infatuation with a young girl in a troop of traveling performers. Nobelist Kawabata’s delicate yet tensile prose, with its undertow of beauty and melancholy, never fails to amaze me. Everyone in the world should read his work, especially writers. This particular story can be downloaded for free at GoodReads, a gift for us all.
“The Pearl” by Yukio Mishima
A coffee klatsch among a group of Tokyo ladies goes off the rails when one of them loses a pearl from her ring — not easy to find because the fancy cake the hostess has served is decorated with sugar pearls embedded in scallops of frosting. Was the missing pearl stolen? Inadvertently tossed out with the crumbs? Or mistaken for something edible? The length the ladies go to to avoid confrontation, save face, and engage in small rivalries is marvelous to watch unfold. This story can be found in a collection of other Mishima stories, Death in Midsummer. Also unforgettable in the collection is “Patriotism,” which recounts in heart-breaking detail the final hours of a failed rebel and his wife before committing suicide.
“St. George” by Gail Godwin
I think one reason I love this story is because the dragon in it reminds me of my Bengal cat. If you’ve ever owned a Bengal, or a large and cheerfully destructive puppy, you’ll know what I mean. In this story, the delightful and very real dragon is the over-story that tells the under-story of an ambitious Medieval studies grad student coming to grips with her need for something more in life than Beowulf. When last I looked, this story was available to listen to on Selected Shorts, wonderfully read by Jane Curtain.
“A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote
This memoir of Capote’s lonely childhood makes me all the more fond of the boy who was Dill in his friend Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it every Christmas since I was 16, and it still makes me cry, not only for the young Truman but also for the older Truman, whose talent was ultimately lost in a Jet Set haze. But oh, the early Truman — what gifts.
“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin
Not a science fiction fan? I wasn’t until years, when ago I stumbled across a book called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. This story, more human drama than science, reminds us that no matter how far technology takes us, we will always carry our frail bodies and human hearts with us, and be forever governed by the laws of physics. “The Cold Equations” can be read online at Space Westerns. Other stories I love in the Hall of Fame collection, for much the same reason, are Larry Niven’s “Inconstant Moon,” “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett (nom de plume for the collaboration of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore), and “Surface Tension” by James Blish.